Ubuntu and risk evaluation in philosophy of technology: local nuclear power provision as discursive conductor

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Humanity has, in our age, clearly departed from the Eden-like geographical epoch known as the Holocene. Human activity has now become a geological force in itself that threatens the existence of all life on earth. For the past two decades the notion of the Anthropocene has served as a conceptual tool within a myriad of disciplines as we grapple with humanity’s new situatedness in a world of its own brave yet destructive making. A major consideration within this epoch is how humanity’s ever-increasing need for energy can be met. While the Anthropocene is a planetary crisis, the importance of localised spheres of resistance is becoming apparent. South Africa’s nuclear energy programme falls within this scope of finding ways in which to meet the energy needs of communities while remaining cognisant of the impact that these technologies may have on the earth. While localised responses to the crises of the Anthropocene are crucial to sustaining life in this epoch, the question now turns to how these innovations can be responsibly employed in localised contexts. One such global innovation that is now being employed in the localised South African context is that of nuclear power.

The South African nuclear power programme has spanned decades of contentious political and ethical debate. One of the ways in which this contentious issue can be framed is through the interdisciplinary lens of the philosophy of risk. In this particular context there is a probability that undesirable events can transpire as a result of the implementation of the technology. On the other hand, undesirable events such as the increased reliance on unsustainable fossil energy sources could occur should the risk of implementing nuclear power not be taken. The introduction of new nuclear power plants and the infrastructure needed to support it necessitates that the South African public evaluate whether the benefits of implementing these technologies outweigh the risks. The malfunctioning of nuclear power plants remains a central part of the discursive landscape as the impact of such malfunctions or meltdowns is enormous, even though such occurrences are rare in terms of the significant number of operational nuclear facilities globally. The severity of incidents such as the ones at Chernobyl and Fukushima influences, and perhaps skews, the public perception of risk. Studies on risk perception associated with nuclear power in South Africa have shown that while malfunction remains a central concern, environmental risks are also seen as central.

The positioning of possible future nuclear plants also poses economic risks to communities that are dependent on tourism. Risk assessment occurs on a variety of levels that include questions about the underlying values employed when accepting or rejecting risk, the public or private stakeholders that determine whether the risk should be taken, as well as the required evidence on which assessments are based.

To stimulate a more nuanced debate about risk acceptance within the context of nuclear energy, traditional approaches to risk can be supplemented by gauging the ethical and social acceptability of risk in the particular communities that might be affected by the proposed implementation of technologies. While the discourse surrounding nuclear power in South Africa has been controversial, the relation between the complementary notions of social and ethical acceptance of risk as understood in this context remains absent.

Delft philosopher of technology Behnam Taebi (2017) describes social acceptance as the acceptance, or often only tolerance, of new technologies in local communities whereas ethical acceptability has to do with reflection about the new technology which weighs up different moral issues that may result from the implementation of the technology in a particular community. He argues that there is an acceptance-acceptability gap that occurs when the focus is exclusively on either social acceptance or ethical acceptability without taking into account how these two modes of risk assessment interact. In order to examine how social acceptance and ethical acceptability relate to each another Taebi suggests the method of Rawlsian Wide Reflective Equilibrium. In approaching questions of risk acceptance from a position that bridges the acceptance-acceptability gap, ethical issues that may otherwise have been overlooked come to the fore. In this article the relation between social acceptance and ethical acceptability is reconsidered through the inclusion of local systems of moral thought, in this case, that of ubuntu. As will be described in this article, ubuntu is an ontological orientation that underlies the acceptance-acceptability gap within specific South African communities. An approach to risk assessment that includes this particular localised theory of morality sensitises the discourse particularly to the values of communality and intergenerational justice. While the ubuntu values presented here are exemplary of the type of values that become central in ethical decision-making when considering ubuntu thinking, they are by no means exhaustive or even representative of the range of moral questions that arise. Rather, by focusing on these specific values this paper endeavours to illustrate that there is a further gap in risk assessment that is often underrepresented, namely that of local moral systems that guide both social acceptance and ethical acceptability.

Keywords: B. Stiegler; B. Taebi; ethical acceptability of technological development; intergenerational justice; Koeberg nuclear power plant; L. Praeg; M.B. Ramose; M. Foucault; nuclear technology in South Africa; philosophy of risk; philosophy of technology; risk assessment in technological contexts; social acceptance of technological development; technological-ethical acceptability; T. Metz; ubuntu; umuntu


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